Sunday, February 28, 2010

I Want to be An Ancestor (2/28/2010)

I Want to be An Ancestor
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 28th, 2010
Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 15:1-12; 17-18

Luke 13:31-35

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be meeting in Minneapolis in a few months. Once every two years Presbyterians gather to celebrate, lament, and make decisions in a revelry of Roberts Rules of Order.

Among the many issues that divide us, the General Assembly will consider a report from the Special Committee to Prepare a Comprehensive Study Focused on Israel/Palestine. This committee was formed in 2008. It has not yet finished its report but has made some recommendations. According to the Presbyterian News Service:
The report affirms historic PC(USA) positions — an immediate cessation of violence by both sides, an immediate freeze on the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied territory, the relocation of Israel’s “separation barrier” to the internationally recognized 1967 border, a shared status for Jerusalem, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and immediate resumption of negotiations toward a two-state solution.
The report also calls on the U.S. government to end its acquiescence in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and to
“employ the strategic use of influence and the withholding of financial and military aid in order to enforce Israel’s compliance with international law and peacemaking efforts.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement this past Monday saying that the
“adoption of this poisonous document by the Presbyterian Church will be nothing short of a declaration of war on Israel and her supporters.”
The statement from the Wiesenthal Center got results. This past week during meetings in Louisville, Presbyterian leaders were flooded with over 2,700 emails protesting this committee and its report, even as the report has yet to be completed.

We are warming up for another thrilling General Assembly.

Meanwhile Jesus sits on the hill weeping over Jerusalem, like a mother hen who
“longs to gather her brood under her wings.”
Sadly, as usual, no one is willing to be gathered.

Today we read the story of Abraham who is promised descendants as many as the stars in the sky. YHWH tells him:
‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’
Of course the Girgashites and the Kadmonites and today, the Palestinians, might raise an objection. Hey, how do we fit into this great plan?

In the Gospel of John, the following words are put on the lips of Jesus:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.”
Of course, the Hindus, pagans, the doubters and the descendants of Abraham might raise an objection. Hey, how do we fit into this great plan?

In the Qur’an we read:
"But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, an seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful."
Of course the Christians, and the pagans and the Jews might raise an objection. Hey how do we fit into this great plan?

Samir Selmanovic in his book, It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian, writes:

“Whenever a creature claims to have an exclusive grasp of God, someone gets hurt.” P. 141.

Samir Selmanovic is a minister in New York City. His book is a plea for religions to find a way to be good for all people. Rather than to see ourselves as a blessing to others (as long as "they" become like "us"), our evolution will require us to recognize that others are a blessing as they are.

The only God worth worshiping is a God that is outside of our religious boundaries. He writes:

‘Each of our three Abrahamic religions makes two claims. First is the claim we agree on: “God is One.” Second is the claim we deny we are making: “We are in charge of God....” Quietly, over the ages, our religions have colonized the name of God and become God management systems.” P. 91.
There is a way to come to terms with these exclusive texts. In fact, there are many ways. Throughout history we have changed the way we read texts. We do it because we read it with “the other” and the other becomes a subject engaged with us rather than an object..

Selmanovic, speaking of the exclusive texts I mentioned from all three monotheistic religions, writes:
“…the meaning of these texts will change if they are read in the presence of the other….when their eyes look into ours, the life context of our interpretation will change and so will the interpretation of the text. Not just the tenor of it but its basic logic. When God visits us through the other, we are awakened and begin to feel what we could not feel before, we see what we could not see before, and we think what we could not think before. In the presence of the other, everything changes.” P. 261.
That may be the central theme of his book.

The "other" is really us.

Only with that recognition will our religions be a blessing.

There have been harsh and I think deserved criticisms of religion surfacing these days. The title alone of Christopher Hitchens' book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything makes the point rather clearly.

I think Hitchens is absolutely partially right. When he is right, he is right absolutely. It is certainly not difficult to find examples that prove Hitchens’ thesis.

But he is not totally right. It is authors like the gracious Selmanovic who have allowed doubt, love, and life to shape his religion into something life affirming for everyone.

In regards to being right, Selmanovic includes this poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai entitled: “The Place Where We Are Right:”

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
in the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow,

And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
I titled the sermon, “I Want to be An Ancestor.” I heard this statement from Nancy Ellen Abrams, author of the book, The View from The Center of the Universe. It was a phrase that jolted me a bit.

The promise of many descendants is not automatic. She was not referring to her own biological offspring. She was talking about the survival of the human race itself.

  • Will we have descendants?
  • Will there be in the future people who look back to this time and to us as ancestors? 

Implied in this desire is that the actions we make today may influence whether or not we do have descendants. Certainly not everything is up to human agency. Even with our best intentions we may make decisions that end up doing more harm than good.

Yet the statement, “I want to be an ancestor” affirms that we do have some choice. Our future is not fated. It is not predestined. We are not programmed for destruction or for glory. We have a choice to participate consciously in life.

Perhaps that is really what is being asked of us: to be conscious of the moment in which we live and to have an intent for the life and well-being of future generations.

According to the Great Binding Law, the Constitution of the Iroquois Nations, we find that crucial ethic:
“In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
I think that statement should have the authority of religious dogma. It should be the creed of every religious group. It should be the pledge of allegiance that every schoolchild recites in the morning. It should be the mission statement of every educational and political institution and the guiding principle for every corporation.
“In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
Just to be conscious of it might be enough to tip us toward life rather than death.

We can read the story of Abraham in a narrow, provincial manner as the promise of real estate by Bronze Age deity to a particular tribe. In one sense that is exactly what it was. But the passage can have a more than that meaning. We can read it as promise of life and the inspiration to creativity for all people on this globe regardless of religion, or nationality, or ethnicity.

We can read the story of Jesus who wishes to gather his brood under his wing as another story that promotes Christian exclusivism. Everybody will be gathered up by our Jesus. Or we can read it as a symbol of compassion and security and the inspiration to make justice, unity, and peace for all people of Earth regardless of our divisions.

We can prove Christopher Hitchens right again and again that religion poisons everything, or we can discover the wisdom, beauty, and poetry from of all of our varied and rich religious traditions and use them to serve life,
to serve all of life,
and to serve life seven generations to come.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Creative Re-Membering (2/21/2010)

Creative Re-Membering
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
February 21st, 2010

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Luke 4:1-13

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Since I attended Baptist and Pentecostal churches growing up, Lent was not on the radar. I secretly envied my Catholic neighbor and best friend because he seemed to have all kinds of churchy parties, events, and saints. We were pretty much a dry bunch in comparison.

The big question around their house at this time of year was what will you give up for Lent? When I told my mom I was going to give up vegetables for Lent she wasn’t amused.

“We don’t do that,” she said.

After becoming Presbyterian, I was introduced to Lent. Kind of Lent Lite. Some people get into it and some don’t. Those who were Presbyterian before the 1970s and the liturgical renewal probably didn’t do much for Lent either. Our Presbyterian forebears were highly suspicious of any kind of “Romanist” activity. They didn’t even celebrate Christmas.

Nowadays we Presbyterians do acknowledge Lent. We have the ashes on the communion table, purple paraments, a song about Jesus walking the lonesome valley, and a reading from the lectionary (definitely not a Puritan practice),

Recognizing Lent is a way to connect to our deeper past. We now realize that our Puritan ancestors might have been a bit zealous in stripping away all of the traditions. We have a better sense of our history than they did and now know that in the early centuries the church developed this period of Lent leading up to Easter. It was a time for those who wished to join the Christian faith to be instructed in preparation for baptism on Easter Sunday.

Lent is 40 days. It begins with Ash Wednesday, skipping Sundays, and ends the day before Easter. It is a period of fasting, of prayer, and of discernment. The foundational story for Lent is the story of Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry.

This is probably a fictional story. It was a creation of the Gospel writers to bring to mind Moses and the Hebrew children wandering forty years in the wilderness in preparation for entry into the Promised Land. That, too, probably, is a fictional story, created a few hundred years before Jesus.

A fascinating book on the creation of these stories in the Hebrew Scriptures is by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. It is called The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and The Origin of Its Sacred Texts. A generation or two ago, scholars viewed the Old Testament as fairly reliable history. Nowadays, scholars are discovering that it is more likely a creative fiction. Not history remembered, but memory created.

To put it bluntly: Moses and the Hebrew children escaping from Pharaoh and wandering in the wilderness and receiving the ten commandments and entering the Promised Land and killing off all the natives. All of it is fiction. None of it happened. Truth be told, I am a little relieved. I never liked the stories about killing off the natives anyway. The rest of it seemed too fantastical to be credible and that is turning out to be the case.

What is fascinating is how these storytellers created their history. They created their memory.  They created their meaning. They created their identity. They created their god. Why did they tell their stories in this way? What did they want to communicate about themselves? Those, to me, are the interesting questions.

The gospel writers were likewise creative. Drawing on the literary motifs of the Hebrew Scriptures and from pagan stories, they created the stories and the Story of Jesus. I don’t think they created him out of whole cloth. There is an historical person in there somewhere. But for the most part, it appears that Jesus is a creative construction. He was the symbol of meaning. He was the product of creative re-membering.

Again, you don’t have to believe a thing I tell you. In fact, you shouldn’t. Check it out for yourself. Certainly there are many who disagree with me. But as scientists tell us honestly what they observe about Earth and its life, so should preachers be honest about what we observe about our religious texts and history.

I might be wrong. I might and likely will change my mind as I learn new things but I won’t tell you something I don’t think is true for the sake of propping up some kind of belief.

Let’s check out this story of Jesus in the desert. The details of the story, the three temptations, are found in Matthew and in Luke, but not in Mark. Possibly, there was an earlier source for these stories. It is also possible that one of the gospel writers created the story and the other copied it with slight modifications.

For both Matthew and Luke, the story tells us about the character of Jesus. It also provides a model for those who identify as followers of Jesus. This is what it means to live with integrity and authenticity. These are the temptations and the desires that will lead to an inauthentic life, according to the gospel writers. The wise person will recognize them and choose a different course of action.

Jesus in the wilderness is a story of meaning. It is a creative re-membering. A story doesn’t have to be historical to have meaning. Quite the opposite. It is the stuff of legends that provide stories that help us understand, make sense, and re-member our lives.

These forty days of Lent, for us, if we wish, can be a time in which we bring to consciousness, recognize, and name, the temptations or desires that keep us from authenticity and integrity. Taking some time for critical reflection, or deciding upon some kind of devotional practice, meditation, or act of service, or an act of negation (giving up something for Lent), can remind us to live with a deeper sense of reverence.

This is not about being somber or serious or depressing. It is a reminder to be vital. We re-member our vitality. We have ashes on our communion table. They are not there for morbid effect. We bring to mind the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” to remind us of the most true, real thing in life—our mortality. One day we will not be. We will be as we were before we were born. Our bodies will be some other critter’s lunch.

Now whether or not our consciousness survives our death in some way, I don’t know. I remain blissfully agnostic. I don’t insist either way. There are others more certain than I. Regardless of what happens beyond this life, still, this life is unique, precious, and finite. We are not coming around this way again.

The ashes remind us then of our vitality in the present. We are alive right now. One day we will not be, but now we are. The tests, temptations, or desires that the Satan shows to Jesus are really what we succumb to most of the time. They are the busy-ness of our sense experience. The busy-ness of our brains keep us from noticing the blade of grass.

That is why our poets and spiritual leaders are constantly harping on us to notice the blade of grass, the single flower, the landscape, the roughness of our hands, the warmth of the sun, the wetness of the snow, the smile of our lover, and so on.

Take it in. Take it all in. Notice it. Don’t let it slip by without a thank you. Some times to appreciate the present we need a stark reminder of our future, or our possible future. If you are up for it, a good book for Lent is Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road. Talk about ashes to ashes and dust to dust. It is a post-apocalyptic novel. We aren’t told what happens except that humanity made some pretty dumb choices and wiped out nearly all of life.

The main character and his son are walking on an abandoned road. Everything is dusty gray. No birds, no grass, no bugs, nothing. It is a very, very sober novel. The characters don’t even have names: man, boy.

In one scene the father finds a newspaper in an abandoned gas station. It is a newspaper obviously from the time before the catastrophe. As he is reading the newspaper and all of the events, news, advertisements, and so forth, he thinks to himself:

How quaint were our concerns.

I think Cormac McCarrthy is a genius. He says it all in a few words.

How quaint were our concerns.

You can read that in a couple of ways. You can read it as a judgment. We weren’t taking seriously what we were doing. Our concerns were not related to the reality we needed to engage.

Or you can read it nostalgically. How wonderful were those days in which we had the luxury to be quaint. Worrying over school board meetings, soccer practice, the colors of flowers for the church, the budget at work, all in comparison to ashes are quaint concerns.

That isn’t a judgment. It is a recognition that all of life, even its hassles, is fragile and precious and worthy of notice.

Life is short. Notice it.

Let’s look at the temptations in particular. This is a story. The character Jesus has divine power. This is not about the historical Jesus. When we read stories of the gods we are projecting on the big screen our own internal struggles. This story is symbolic about our own tests, temptations and desires.

Jesus is hungry. The satan or the adversary tells him to turn the stone to bread. He has the power. Jesus answers that we do not live by bread alone. The point is not whether we can or cannot turn bread to stone, but whether or not using our energy and power to satisfy our sense desires is our highest purpose.

Jesus answers that we do not live by bread alone. Life is not about satisfying our sense desires alone. Yes we need bread to eat. But if we focus only on getting these things for ourselves we will lose the capacity for justice and compassion for others.

The satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. The test here is the desire for power and control. It shows lack of trust. Desire for power at its root is a desire for security. Unless I control you, you will destroy me. Powerful military nations are especially susceptible to this temptation. Unless we are the boss of the planet we are not safe.

Then the satan takes Jesus to top of the temple and says, “Jump!”

I am thinking that this temptation relates to a fear of not measuring up. Needing rescue. Needing external validation. “Prove you are the son of God,” says the satan. Prove you are a worthy human being. Jesus responds in essence that he doesn’t need to prove anything. Neither do we.

These tests are tests of integrity. Will we use our energy and our power to secure for ourselves at the expense of community, others, and the reverence for life? Authenticity for individuals is related to just and compassionate relationships with others.

These tests or temptations are temptations to be self-focused and distracted. They are temptations to live small, self-absorbed lives. They keep us from cooperation and collaboration with others. They keep us from living peacefully within our own skin.

I don’t claim that my commentary on these temptations is correct. In fact, the point of them is to open up conversation. If I might be so bold as to give you an assignment, it is to talk about these tests over lunch today.

What do these tests relate to in our own lives as individuals, communities, nations, and the human species?

What are the temptations, desires, or tests that keep us from living authentically, that keep us from noticing life with awe and reverence?

What keeps us busy and preoccupied?

How might we instead creatively re-member who we are?

Even if just for a moment?

With that I wish for you a Holy Lent.

May this be a season of discernment, of renewal, of re-membering, and of vitality.

Let us pray.

Holy Spirit, you know what the world needs more than we do. It is for this reason and this reason alone that we meditate. Bring it swiftly, surely, and most harmoniously into the life of every living being.

Holy Spirit, you know what each of us needs more than we do. It is this reason and this reason alone that we meditate. Bring it swiftly, surely, and most harmoniously into each of our lives.

Peace, Peace, Authentic Peace.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Better Living Through Evolution (2/14/2010 Evolution Sunday)

Better Living Through Evolution
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 14th, 2010
Evolution Sunday

Luke 9:28-36
Bhagavad Gita 11:8-14

Welcome to Evolution Sunday. This is the fifth year this congregation has participated. Evolution Sunday is the brainchild of Michael Zimmerman, professor of biology at Butler University. He started the Clergy Letter Project. Since its inception in 2006, over 12,000 clergy have signed a letter stating their support of teaching evolution as a core component of human knowledge.

The idea of Evolution Sunday or Evolution Weekend is to devote the Sunday that is closest to Charles Darwin’s birthday to science and to evolution. My only lament is that Evolution Sunday comes but once per year. Like we are supposed to do with Christmas we should keep the warmth and wisdom of natural selection in our hearts year round.

One might ask what right have I to talk about evolution? I am not a scientist. That is true. I am a simple country preacher. But I don’t need to be a scientist to know that if I jump off of the roof of my house I will fall and hit the ground. My physics professor in college explained that to me. His name was Denny Lee. He said the reason that happens is because the earth sucks. That will happen again and again no matter how much I pray for angels to uphold me or how much I read my Bible.

He also explained those little white dots we see in the sky on a clear night. They are not gods. They are not spirits of ancestors. They are not holes in the blue dome that covers the earth. They are not space aliens. They are stars. They are balls of fire like our sun but a long way away. They will be there and from our vantage point appear to move whether we pray to them or not.

Our sun while we say it rises in the morning and sets at night we don’t really mean it. There is no deity who rides his fiery chariot across the sky each day. In fact our little blue sphere of a home rotates respective to the sun and revolves around it completing its journey once per year.

I knew these things before my professor told us in his own witty way. We don’t need to be scientists to know these things. It is good to know these things. It is good to teach them to our children.

If you were to ask me how gravity works or to provide calculations predicting the motions of Earth and the stars I couldn’t do it. But there are folks who work on those puzzles. They will do so without needing to bring God into it. Many such astronomers and physicists have done a lot of work on these questions. They have come up with some good things to know.

Scientists have been able to date the beginning of the universe to about 13.7 billion years ago and the date of Earth to 4.5 billion years or so. Our earliest fossils, micro bacteria, I have heard, are about 3.5 billion years old. Life that today includes ants, dung beetles, grass, cabbage, bonobos, bananas, and you and me are the twists and turns of natural processes.

If you were to ask me details of how this works I wouldn’t be able to tell you. But there are folks who work on these puzzles. They will do so without needing to bring God into it. This science is public and cumulative and open to anyone who wishes to pick up a book and read. A good one by the way is the latest by Richard Dawkins called The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

Thankfully, this information is becoming more and more available to non-scientists and of course, most importantly, to children who are going to need to think critically and understand how life works to address the challenges they will face.

So what does it mean that a recent Harris Poll tells us 54 percent of U.S. adults believe that humans did not develop from earlier species? To scare you further that is up from 46 percent in 1994.

It means that we have work to do. I think it is an invitation for us to be more forthcoming and public about the importance of science. This includes being forthcoming about our own religious texts and how they are human products and how religion itself is a product of cultural evolution.

Let’s look at it from a different angle. This creationist hoopla (you know a 6,000 year old Earth, Cain and Abel riding dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden, the superstition of intelligent design) may be a good thing. Because of it we now have stacks of books on evolution and science for the non-specialist. Controversy can help move things forward.

A book I recommend is by a professor at Binghamton University. He has started an Evolutionary Studies program there. His name is David Sloan Wilson, His book is Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives.

Wilson is an evolutionist. He is of the view that evolution is not merely a specialized academic theory for biologists. All fields including human behavior, literary studies, religion, art, music, and psychology, can be enhanced by seeing them through an evolutionary perspective.

Let’s take a look at a famous text in the Bible. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes:
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
I know this piece of scripture has resonated with many people. We all know that feeling of not doing what we want to do and doing what we don’t want to do. We probably know the feeling of getting down on ourselves for it. We have said perhaps about ourselves something like, “Wretched man [or woman] that I am.”

Paul doesn’t specify what sin dwelt within him. But we can probably guess. It likely had to do with sex or food, our most powerful drives. Maybe he discovered a narcotic of some kind. Maybe some kind of personality trait such as temper.

But it is very possible that the "sin" that enslaved him was something his ancestors needed to survive. Our desire for sugar, fat, and salt is a carryover of what enabled our ancestors to survive when those things were in short supply, unlike today when what we call junk food is more plentiful that healthy food.

Paul need not think of himself as a wretched man filled with sin and evil. He is dancing with ghosts.

In David Sloan Wilson’s book he invites us to imagine a roomful of ballroom dancers. Each is dancing with an invisible partner. At the edge of a dance floor is a huge pit. The dancers fall into it one after another.

He uses that image to describe an environment that has changed but the organism behaves from old rules. This is like sea turtles that evolved to see reflected moonlight on the surface of the sea so when they are born on the beach they follow the light to the sea. But now with beach houses offering light, the baby sea turtles go the wrong way following the light of the beach houses to their death. They are dancing with ghosts as are many species especially as humans have changed their environments.

Human beings dance with ghosts as well. We continue old patterns, such as desiring and eating unhealthy food, even as our environment changed.

Paul is engaging unconsciously with desires that aren’t necessarily bad, just not helpful in the present. Knowing that doesn’t excuse it, nor does it prevent it. But it can lift that guilt and self-loathing. That is a lot. It can raise awareness of what was previously unconscious so that it loses its mystique and power.

If we can name it, we are more likely to tame it.

Evolutionary theory whether genetic evolution or cultural evolution could be the best thing we have going to explain who we are and why we are who we are. Understanding our ancestry including our deep ancestry can bring to consciousness aspects of our behavior that we couldn’t explain or that we explained by debasing ourselves or others.

Why do we dance? Did you know that dance is prior to language? Our earliest ancestors danced together in groups sometimes until exhaustion. They did it because that brought them together. It made them feel connected. Music and drumming and dancing. It is primal. It is before speech. Watch a one year old getting down to the rhythm of a washing machine and you know what I mean. Music and dance is universal. It is the activity that connects human beings, that allows us to cooperate and to praise one another.

I have a solution for the folks in congress. They need to take their shoes off and have a sock hop, dancing night and day until they fall exhausted. Now that is a filibuster.

Our two stories for today, one from the Bible and one from the Bhagavad Gita are legends. They are similar. Some people may think that what is important about these stories is that they are different. Not only different but folks may think that one story is superior or more true and so forth than the other.

I think it is more interesting to see what these two stories have in common. In each case the god is in human form and reveals to the people his true form. Jesus for Peter, James, and John, and Krishna for Arjuna.

Peter, James, and John see Jesus in white standing with Moses and Elijah. Arjuna sees Krishna as the embodiment of the universe. Dramatic visions. Then when it is done, they all are a bit stunned. In Jesus’ case a voice comes from heaven telling Peter, James, and John to do what Jesus tells them. Back to Earth. In Krishna’s case, Krishna tells Arjuna to do his duty. Back to Earth.

In other words the vision provides strength for the journey. It doesn’t solve their problems. It makes them aware of their connection. These stories are symbolic stories of the experience of insight. These are the ‘aha’ moments. “Oh, I get it now!” These stories symbolize awareness, consciousness, wonder, and awe.

Peter, James, John, and Arjuna still have to do their duty. They still have to live on Earth. But they do so with a heightened awareness. Today, in the place of gods, visions, and miracles, we have elegant theories of how things work. In the place of original sin and Satan we have a 3.5 billion year evolutionary process. We are different than each other and we are different than other species, but we are also alike. We share with all of life all the way back genetics and a creative process.

I think that is pretty amazing. Not only is that amazing, but if you will excuse the use of some spiritual words, it is enlightening and inspiring. It is amazing grace. Like Arjuna, Peter, James, and John, we still have to live in the world. We still have to do our duty whatever that duty might be, but we do it with a whole cloud of witnesses, an entire ancestral deep history of life surging through us.

We have no less experiences today that Peter, James, John, and Arjuna had. Our ancients told stories of gods, but it is even more amazing, far more amazing today. We can marvel at a beehive and know a little about their dance. We can see images of deep, deep space through images from the Hubble Telescope. Or we can lie on our backs and night and know that those lights are suns millions of light-years away. We can be aware that all the things we do and feel have a history, a deep history.

We belong here. On Earth. As Earthlings on our blue boat home.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Answering the Call (2/7/2010)

Answering the Call
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Isaiah 6:1-13
Luke 5:1-11

Did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to this world
All its

It felt the encouragement of light
Against its

We all remain

The way of creativity, the via creativa, is the way of finding our voice. It is waking up. It is discovery. It is answering the call.

Throughout the Bible our heroes and heroines responded to the divine call. In the 12th chapter of Genesis, Abram whose name changes among other things because of his call is sent on a journey:

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

That isn’t the last time Abram who becomes Abraham hears that terrifying summons.

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’

Poor Abraham won’t be the only one haunted by YHWH. Moses, too. He is minding his own business, keeping the flock of his father-in-law when he sees a strange sight. He sees a bush that is burning but not consumed. He makes his first mistake. He goes to check it out.

Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’.

YHWH goes on to say:

The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’

YHWH even picks on helpless children. Poor Samuel is awakened in the night. For every kid who has ever thought there are monsters in the closet, Samuel experiences something even more terrifying, a YHWH under his bed. After being called twice and mistaking it for his master, Eli (who knows by now the voice of that old trickster), Samuel listens:

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.

YHWH calls and then sends those whom he calls to unpleasant tasks. He calls them to bring a word of judgment and change. These are thankless assignments:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew…. Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

Oh, bad mistake. But when you are summoned….

And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’

I still don’t understand that assignment. A gloom and doomer forecasting destruction and doing it in such a way that the people won’t listen and change.

Our spiritual tradition has bred all kinds of madness. Self-proclaimed prophets who out of some delusion of grandeur engage in all variety of mindless pursuits.

We may wonder about these stories in the Bible. From a modern vantage point we rightly see these stories as creative fictions. They are ancient projections of the tellers’ own desires and frustrations, grief and hope. Their explanations for why this deity who controls everything cannot or will not stop suffering are for most of us, unconvincing.

We know rationally that there is likely no deity, higher power, or universal force invading our lives with the insistence of telephone solicitors. The gods come and our doubters, skeptics, and rationalists sweep them away. They change shape, don new identities and mythologies and visit us again. The skeptics do away with them again. Again, they return. We can’t seem to rid ourselves of supernaturalism.

Robinson Jeffers in his poem, “Silent Shepherds” suggests that perhaps supernaturalism is necessary after all. He describes the characters he would have in his ideal world.

What's the best life for a man? To ride in the wind. To ride
horses and herd cattle
In solitary places above the ocean on the beautiful mountain,
and come home hungry in the evening
And eat and sleep. He will live in the wild wind and quick rain,
he will not ruin his eyes with reading,
Nor think too much.
However, we must have philosophers.
I will have shepherds for my philosophers,
Tall dreary men lying on the hills all night
Watching the stars, let their dogs watch the sheep
And I'll have lunatics
For my poets, strolling from farm to farm, wild liars distorting
The country news into supernaturalism--
For all men to such minds are devils or gods--and that increases
Man's dignity, man's importance, necessary lies
Best told by fools.

Perhaps that is the best definition for religion we can find:

Necessary lies best told by fools.

Fools who hear and answer a divine calling. Fools who insist that there is some kind of meaning out there. Fools who refuse to wear black and read Nietzsche on a lonely park bench in a random city on a blue planet at the edge of a galaxy that has no purpose.

But listen to the last few lines of Jeffers’ poem:

Science and mathematics
Run parallel to reality, they symbolize it, they squint at it,
They never touch it: consider what an explosion
Would rock the bones of men into little white fragments and unsky
the world
If any mind for a moment touch truth.

There we go again with truth. Reason might not be the only path. The heart has reasons that Reason does not know. So does the holy fool.

In her book, Doubt: A History, the author, Jennifer Michael Hecht traces the history of doubters and skeptics from the early Greeks through to the present day. What is winsome about her book is that she has great sympathy for believers and doubters alike. Both are of the same cloth. She keeps that tension, that dance, between doubt and belief visible.

She writes:

Whether you are a non-believer, or you belong to a religion without God, or you are a believer troubled by dark nights of the soul, we are all part of the same discussion. This is because, whatever our position may be, we all have the same contradictory information to work with. Sometimes it feels like there is a God or ultimate certainty, and it would be a great comfort if such a thing existed and we knew the answers to life's ultimate mysteries: who or what created the universe and why; what is human life for; what happens when I die? But there is no universally compelling, empirical, or philosophical evidence for the existence of God, a purposeful universe, or life after death. Some people may be tone-deaf to the idea of evidence, some may be tone-deaf to the feeling that there is a higher power--we must forgive them each their failing…. Believers value the sense of mystery human beings can feel when they look inward or beyond; nonbelievers value the ability to map out the world by rational proofs. Pp. xi-xii

Perhaps these stories of call, the call of Isaiah and the call of Simon and the sons of Zebedee to leave their nets, point to something--whether within us or without us--that is real and necessary. We get there by the feeling and the nudge that is symbolized in these stories by the divine voice.

Reinhold Niebuhr ends his book, Moral Man, Immoral Society by telling us that we need illusions. For whatever you call it, salvation, awakening, redemption, we need a sublime madness of the soul:

In the task of that redemption the most effective agents will be men who have substituted some new illusions for the abandoned ones. The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of mankind can achieve perfect justice. It is a very valuable illusion for the moment; for justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and “spiritual wickedness in high places.” The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason. One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done. P. 277

Niebuhr captures that play, that back and forth. We need the madness. We need the crazy poets who listen to divine voices otherwise we are liable to sink into a resigned despair. But we need reason to put some quality control on these voices so we don’t all end up throwing cups and saucers at the Madhatter’s tea party. But we can’t bring the reason out too soon or we may never hear the voice of the fool who had a dream, and in the summer of 1963 told it to the nation:

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

You know that voice. Martin Luther King’s. Where would we be if he hadn’t acted on his belief that the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice?

Thus is born the via creativa. The spiritual path of creativity. This is that feeling, that sublime madness of the soul, that helps us screw up the courage to speak even when our natural instincts knot our stomachs.

This is the feeling that invites us to take a chance on love when the voices of reason and prudence wear on us to keep us safe but lonely.

This is the feeling that invites us to open the door to some creative chaos so Spirit can blow around and shake up our sterile orderliness.

Perhaps most of all,

This is the feeling that embraces us with warmth and light and encourages us to give the world our beauty.